After devouring some loaned box sets of Frasier and Seinfeld, I decided to do a bit of reading on the topic of American sitcoms. Their worlds are just so fascinatingly peculiar; quite unlike anything else. In particular, I’m interested in ‘stock characters’ and the ways in which they relate to each other.
I noticed that Seinfeld has a strangely similar feel to Father Ted. Indeed, I’d go as far to say that Seinfeld might be the American counterpart of Britain’s Father Ted. If America were to remake Ted they’d call it ‘Father Larry’ and set it in rural Arizona with all manner of wacky characters popping in and out. That would be a literal remake but not really a translation. The elements shared by Ted and Seinfeld make me think that they are sort of transcontinental doppelganger shows. I seem to recall Graham Linehan saying on the Ted DVD commentary that he admired Seinfeld as a sitcom so maybe this ‘translation’ was deliberate.
It is the similar use of stock characters in these two shows that make them so alike, I think. In particular, it is the Sage, the Holy Fool and the Rake that populate both sitcoms.
According to Wikipedia (and other sources, admittedly), there is a sitcom stock character called ‘the wacky neighbour’ and Seinfeld‘s Cosmo Kramer is the first example of this.
Now, while the ‘wacky neighbour’ is undoubtedly a recurring entity, particularly in American sitcoms, I don’t see how it can really be considered a stock character. It’s not up there with the likes of the Sage, is it?
The reason for wacky neighbours is surely down to the geography of the family sitcom. It’s set in a house and you need a way of getting regular characters in from beyond the walls of the house. A neighbour is the obvious way of doing this and since they are transient characters, you can allow them to be slight departures from the reality of the show, hence their ‘wackiness’.
Stock characters are the result of social archetypes. As everyone is a neighbour to someone or other, how can there ever be an architypal neighbour? Perhaps the role and responsibilities of neighbourliness can become archetypal, but that’s not important to the character of the ‘wacky neighbour’.
So I wouldn’t describe Kramer as being a ‘wacky neighbour’ but rather some sort of idler; a not-quite-human flaneur, to most extents unemployable yet strangely adored by everyone and whose real agenda is seen only by the rest of the central cast and by the viewers at home. In Father Ted, Kramer becomes Father Jack.
Perhaps this wacky neighbour business is an American phenomenon (and conseqentally should always be the wacky neighbor now I think about it) and people actually have these characters living in their in real life neighbourhoods. And perhaps fat, bald men constantly date attractive, classy women and perhaps the furniture in American homes really does all face an empty fourth wall.